Special election rattles political landscape

by Leslie Turk

Political newcomer Vance McAllister of Swartz pulled off his second big election surprise in a row by easily defeating the early favorite in the Nov. 16 runoff in the 5th Congressional District.

Political newcomer Vance McAllister of Swartz pulled off his second big election surprise in a row by easily defeating the early favorite in the Nov. 16 runoff in the 5th Congressional District.

State Sen. Neil Riser, R-Columbia, was easily defeated in a Saturday runoff in the 5th Congressional District by a more moderate Republican newcomer,
Vance McAllister of Swartz

After coming out of nowhere to finish second in the primary - and 15 points behind state Sen. Neil Riser of Columbia - McAllister thumped his fellow Republican in the runoff with nearly 60 percent of the vote. He replaces U.S. Rep. Rodney Alexander, who joined the Jindal Administration one day after announcing he was leaving office.

"No one saw this coming," said one political operative not aligned with either campaign.

Another predicted even more surprises as data becomes available, saying, "I'll bet [McAllister] carries all major demographics when the analysis is done. He definitely cornered the anti-Jindal vote."

While endorsements often don't offer enough to push a candidate over the finish line, Couvillon said McAllister owes a large debt to Public Service Commission Clyde Holloway, a Republican from Forest Hill; Monroe Mayor Jamie Mayo, a Democrat; and the "Duck Dynasty" bunch, according to John Couvillon with JMC Enterprises of Louisiana.

All gave big nods to the businessman. Holloway and Mayo, in particular, were primary losers.

"The cumulative effect of those endorsements is important," Couvillon said. "In isolation they wouldn't have made as much of a difference as all three together."

While both ran on conservative platforms, McAllister took a more pragmatic approach to the Affordable Care Act and even called for expanding Medicaid to cover more uninsured low-income residents - opposing Gov. Bobby Jindal's stance. Riser in turn attacked McAllister in direct mail and on TV regarding the health care issue.

McAllister made his stance known on Medicaid just eight days before the election, during a time in campaigns when many voters start tuning out, with their decisions already made. Analysts and consultants say McAllister had already worked up a head of steam when he dropped his political bomb during Louisiana Public Broadcasting's Nov. 8 debate.

Given more time, Riser could have gained traction on his attacks, they say, but probably not enough to turn the tide.

Nonetheless, many view McAllister's Medicaid expansion comments as the turning point in the race. It may have certainly been the fuel behind Democratic turnout in certain areas, like black precincts in Ouachita Parish where McAllister earned more votes than Mayo did in the primary.

Riser was supported by all of the state's Republican congressmen and was all but verbally endorsed by Gov. Bobby Jindal, who called the senator a good friend and "great conservative leader" while criticizing McAllister's position on the Medicaid expansion.

The question now becomes whether the race will affect next year's U.S. Senate election. In his campaign against incumbent U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu, Congressman Bill Cassidy does seem to be using the same playbook as McAllister's failed opponent.

Themes that draw support from the tea party demographic - thrash Obamacare, be tough on immigration, balance the budget and cut entitlements - haven't worked for Cassidy, R-Baton Rouge, who trails behind newcomer and fellow Republican Rob Maness in that respect. Riser, however, did have tea party support. And look where it got him.

That's not to say Maness is positioned for a similar upset. But it's probably a sign that Cassidy will be taking a more pragmatic approach in the coming months on what have been his cornerstone issues. Unless Landrieu, a New Orleans Democrat who has made an art of playing the center, gets there first.